All the Human Animals at The West Edge Festival 2016

Nikola Printz as Fox; Amy Foote as Vixen.

Opera is all emotion and no logic. The opening weekend of The West Edge Festival was an excellent reminder of that fact. Over the course of two weeks, West Edge Opera is staging three operas in an abandoned train station in West Oakland. This is the Festival’s second year at the 16th Street Station. Closed for the past 22 years, the 1912 building is a monument to a lost era.

As the lights dim before the performances, the space is primed to transport the imagination. Most of the audience sits on folding chairs in the middle of the hall. One long row of wooden pews serves as a comfortable back row. But like that scene in The Rolling Stones’ video “Waiting on a Friend,” some people sat on the sidelines, upon cool cement steps leading up to closed off and darkened corridors that are no longer in use.

[jump] Plaster cracks appear everywhere revealing strips of aged brick. The walls have been washed and stained by a ghostly painter’s brush. Parts of the ceiling threaten to come crashing down. Once the doors are closed time stops inside the warm, airless cavern. The theatrical magic you always hope for settles in easily on such a stage of decaying grandeur.

Opening night featured a vibrant production of Leoš Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen. The set consisted of three enormous trees cut out from a fairy tale forest. Initially lit with a grass green light, the colors changed to indicate the transition between nature and village life. Even with the Czech lyrics translated in supertitles, the physical world frequently gave way to the quick shifts of mood that the characters expressed in song.
The plot loosely concerns the pursuit of a vixen by a hunter. The narrative through line wanders about as ancillary figures come and go. The whys and hows of which become increasingly less important. The hunter’s household is populated with a wife and children, a dog and chickens. All sorts of creatures inhabit the forest. And all of the animals are played by people in charming, brightly colored costumes. The vixen, a standout in red, wears a Betsey Johnson wig and a smart leather jacket. The knit cap of a rooster is turned on its side so the two wool balls on top can indicate a wattle.

Most inventive are the chickens in their vivid yellow skirts lined with downy feathers. They look like Lawrence Welk dancers, except their movements are choreographed to mimic clucking and pecking, their arms akimbo like flapping wings. Their odd presence confirms the director’s intent: what’s unfolding in front of us is the dream-life of animals. It’s a primal folk tale whose songs emanate from the bodies of our irrational selves.
Powder Her Face by Thomas Adès, which opened the following afternoon, expands on this idea. The composer makes an example out of one woman’s libidinous appetites, Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll. In this telling of the most salacious aspects of her life, she too is all animal, overrun by her sexual desires, because she can afford to be. Adès and the librettist Philip Hensher, assign something punitive to her behavior. The Duchess, when introduced, is isolated and in decline at the end of her life — they insinuate — because of her decadence and promiscuity. Men in similar circumstances are seldom held to the same fires of condemnation.

They provide her with arias that explore her narcissism, and her depravity. Supporting characters ridicule and mock her. A turncoat maid makes for a particularly fearsome antagonist. It’s an opera fueled by schadenfreude, wickedly mean-spirited and ribald. However, there’s a purity in the level of melodrama achieved, crowned by that famous brand of peculiar, English bile. 

The Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir brings in moments of levity and joy to The Cunning Little Vixen. Powder Her Face is more challenging to the uninitiated ear. It’s like listening to a Cole Porter musical that’s been bathed in an acid bath. All that brass sounds like it’s melting. For that reason alone, if you must choose between them, opt for the discomfiting Adès. Or wait for the third production Saturday: Handel’s enchanting Agrippina opens then.

The West Edge Festival 2016, Through Aug. 14, 1601 Wood Street, Oakland, 510-841-1903.


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